With first playing fourth and second against third, this weekend’s Championship fixtures are all about the battle of the promotion heavyweights.
Leaders West Bromwich Albion go to in-form Brentford, while Leeds and Fulham will look to regroup from disappointing defeats in their return fixtures last weekend.
Just eight games remain for all 24 clubs, while there is a seven point buffer for the top two on the chasing pack.
Baggies up and running, Bees upbeat
West Brom’s derby draw against Birmingham on Saturday was enough to see them leapfrog Leeds at the top on goal difference, despite the Baggies passing up several chances to break the deadlock.
Having “passed the test” of their return post shutdown, as head coach Slaven Bilic put it, they can expect a real tussle from fellow promotion hopefuls Brentford, who are the division’s top scorers having netted two more than Albion’s 64 goals this term.
“Everybody had a few little doubts,” Bilic told BBC Radio WM. “But the players now have that game under their belt. They lacked that match sharpness but we are now expecting that to be better.
“With all due respect to Birmingham they knew what they wanted to do, but playing Brentford should be a more normal two-sided game.”
Thomas Frank’s Bees started the season slowly but have been in the top six since nudging their way into the play-off picture over the Christmas period.
Last weekend’s vital 2-0 win over rivals Fulham moved Brentford to within a point of the Cottagers and also drew in the top two.
“All the pressure and the advantage is with West Brom,” Frank told BBC Radio London.
“We can play with absolute and total freedom on Friday, and we can attack.”
He added: “In a top game like this all our players need to perform on a seven, eight out of 10 and hopefully a few on a 10 – then we will be in a good place.”
Character in abundance
Leeds’ defeat by Cardiff seemed to be a missed opportunity to pull clear at the top of the table, after Albion’s draw and Fulham’s loss against the Bees.
Fans, haunted by their drop out of the automatic places at the end of last season, might begin to fear another slump.
The visit of a team like Fulham will be a serious examination of their promotion mettle.
“We cannot link this match with the disappointment of last season,” Bielsa said.
“I didn’t think the team couldn’t cope last season, and if there is one thing this team shows every time they play, then it’s character.
“These last eight matches will generate the same expectation until the situation is defined.”
Elland Road, normally such an intimidating place to play for visiting teams, will be silent bar the noise from the bench and on the field, because of coronavirus restrictions.
That lack of a partisan atmosphere might be felt by Fulham but as boss Scott Parker says, it is likely to be as different for the hosts.
“Players thrive off that intensity, so it can work both ways.” he told BBC Radio London.
“The hostility can bring a siege mentality, and can also be a positive as well as a negative for players.”
Parker has already guided Fulham to a victory over Leeds this season, back in December, and another would reduce the gap on the automatic places from seven to four.
“It’s very simple, it’s a nine-game shootout, we need to win as many games as we can,” he added.
The rest of the division
It is also a key time for clubs at the wrong end of the league, as Neil Warnock leads struggling Middlesbrough to Stoke in his first game in charge.
Charlton and bottom side Luton are both involved in early kick-offs against QPR and Swansea respectively, with Barnsley later hosting Millwall and Hull going to Birmingham.
Play-off chasing Cardiff can leapfrog Preston if they can beat their promotion rivals in a ‘six-pointer’ while Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield, both in need of points for very different reasons, are in action on Sunday.